After the sports car, my favorite segment in the automotive world is the sport sedan. Sport sedans have the difficult task of bridging the gap between civility and raucousness; a pairing that is expected of them by driving enthusiasts who need more than two doors in their lives. The split personality that is required of sport sedans has put many engineers in insane asylums trying to perfect the vehicles for today’s society; and to be honest, who is to blame them? There are so many needs and wants required in automobiles that it is virtually impossible to put them all into a tight little package. As of late, most cars tend to err on the side of civility, completely disregarding the need for a dose of hellacious fun. For enthusiasts such as myself, this shift has left me quite disappointed; that is, until I was fortunate to get behind the wheel of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F SPORT.
For any die-hards that were disappointed with the previous generation IS, fear not: this generation is a significant leap forward. While styling is subjective and Lexus has been known for its lack of effort in that department, the new IS is anything but bland. Some like it and some hate it, but there’s no denying that it’s different; personally, I feel that it is overwrought. The IS looks as if the designers got angry with their cars being called bland, and so they went over the top. My biggest gripe is with the front fascia; the funky headlights and separated LED driving lights that resemble the Nike logo just don’t work well. The spindle grill – which brings the Predator to mind – is overbearing, while the lower functional side vents could be reduced in number without compromising functionality. Why couldn’t Lexus have used restyled headlights from the GS and slapped them on instead?
For any die-hards that were disappointed with the previous generation IS, fear not: this generation is a significant leap forward.
If you look past the front mug, however, you will find that the rest of the IS is quite attractive and sporty. Looked at from a profile, the body lines seem fluidic in nature, and do well to keep the car clean and attractive. The rear taillight starts at the quarter panel and sweep their way up into the back of the car, flaring out to minimize drag. It is quite different and unique, and appears destined to be a love-it-or-hate-it design. The rear of the car is quite the contrast form the front; the clean and simple design is borderline elegant.
My tester came in one of the best colors that has ever hit the automotive world: Ultra White. The paint is gorgeous and shows the curves and creases of the body extremely well. My test IS F SPORT came with 18” aluminum alloys in a graphite finish wrapped in Bridgestone Turanzas in 225 section width in the front and 255 in the rear; a sporty look the tied the car together.
Make your way inside the IS and you’ll find a welcome sight: an interior that takes its design cues from the LFA.
Make your way inside the IS and you’ll find a welcome sight: an interior that takes its design cues from the LFA. The interior is quite different from the colder styling of the German sport sedans, and it sets itself apart from the crowd with a design that is purely Lexus. My tester’s interior was Rioja Red NuLuxe Silver Performance Trim, alongside black leather and plastic, which made for a nice color combination alongside the white exterior. My only gripe is with the plastic components, which are placed lower in the car, and are of questionable quality; all things considered, they don’t exactly fit in a car of this price. The IS F SPORT has trim pieces on the dash and on the doors that are some odd hybrid of aluminum and carbon fiber; they don’t exactly fit the car either, as they cheapen the interior, and look unnatural and out of place in a car of this category and nameplate.
The cabin is airy with minimal blind spots and very little obstruction. There is plenty of rear passenger room, but foot room in the rear is limited by the front seats, which don’t have space under them in certain positions. That said, with my driver’s seat adjusted to my preference, the room was adequate behind it with reasonable head room. Both front and rear seats are quite comfortable and supportive and allow for comfort even in long trips, though it would be nice to have extendable thigh supports on the front buckets for added measure. It’s a very quiet interior for a sport sedan, with wind and road noise kept to a minimum; though we’ve come to expect this of any vehicle wearing the “L” badge. The engine and exhaust are hardly heard from until the car is put into Sport Mode, at which point the car performs some form of magic and makes crackling and burbling noises as soon as you hit the throttle; the noise is very foreign for a Lexus.
The gauge cluster is by far the best design on the market. Once again taking design cues from the LFA, the cluster features a single sliding tachometer TFT screen, unlike the multiple screens in the LFA. It slides from the right hand side to the center of the cluster, and, despite only moving a couple of inches, it is by far the best thing in its class. The numbers and information are clear and easy to read, and the multiple menus and sub-menus are very helpful in finding the perfect setup for each driver. I found that with the tachometer screen in the center, with the digital speedometer in the open face of the tachometer, was the ultimate setup.
The gauge cluster is by far the best design on the market.
With this setup, you will find that the trip computer will show you the necessary information on the left, with the fuel levels and other indicators on the right. The cluster as a whole takes up relatively little space, leaving matte black areas to the left and right of the unit within the gauge hood. This area is allocated to the various alert lights that notify the driver of what else is going on with the car such as the automatic headlights, Eco Mode, signal lights, etc. Lexus could have done a little better job here, and maybe made the TFT screens bigger, so that the alert lights could have been included on the main screens.
The center stack is hit-or-miss with potential buyers. The HVAC controls are easy enough to use, but they are sometimes a little hard to read, given their small fonts. There’s a touch slider for temperature control which works like a charm, although features like these force driver’s to take their eyes off the road for more time than is ideal. Contained in the center console is the shift knob, mode control dial, and the Lexus’s infotainment control system, which is rather unique and quite different from the German’s ubiquitous dial control systems or Cadillac’s CUE. The control system is similar to a computer mouse, though it’s not incredibly easy to use.
The center stack is hit-or-miss with potential buyers.
The pointer highlights the closest icon near it on the screen and will allow you move from icon to icon with feedback from the controller, and the sensitivity can be increased or decreased based on your feel. I found that the lower the sensitivity, the easier it is to control the pointer, which helps you from surfing through the menus too fast. Unfortunately, the system is not straight forward, and it requires your full attention in order to be used properly. Luckily, the voice button on the steering wheel allows you to give most commands through verbal dictation which is both easier and less time consuming. All things considered, the system is a step in the right direction to modernize the antiquated versions in the older Lexus models, but its complexity will still be a headache to many owners.
The only other gripe I have with this car is the downshifting nature of the 8-speed automatic transmission when in Sport or Sport + mode. The transmission in the tester did not rev-match downshifts, as Lexus stated it would. That said, the shifts were quick enough, but they increased the rpm, and when the gearbox stepped down a gear, there was no smooth transition and no throttle blip. It felt like a normal automatic transmission, complaining the entire time when you are trying to shift it manually. That issue aside, the care was an absolute joy to drive.
In Normal mode, the car rides like your typical Lexus: soft, cushioned, and downright comfortable. The computer controlled adjustable suspension puts all four corners in their softest settings, and makes for a livable ride that soaks up all but the worst bumps on the road. The transmission shifts are virtually imperceptible, which allows the car to seemingly float along the road. Turn the drive selection dial to the left once, and you’ll put the IS F SPORT in Eco mode which instructs the transmission to put itself into the highest gear it can drive in, and dulls throttle input to provide you with the best fuel economy possible. Drive conservatively and you will see a green Eco light glow in the gauge cluster, which shows just how frugal your driving habits really are.
In Normal mode, the car rides like your typical Lexus: soft, cushioned, and downright comfortable.
Switching between Normal and Eco mode on the highway yielded me 25-26 mpg on a trip from Bethlehem, CT to Boston, MA and back again, with speeds lightly exceeding the posted limits. In either of the aforementioned modes, there seemed to be quite a bit of hesitation when trying to pass a slower motorist on the road due to the required gear step down from the 8-speed transmission. The car sometimes couldn’t figure out which gear it should be in and didn’t know how many gears for it needed to step down to achieve the right driving feel. This is not the first car that I have tested that has had this issue, and I blame this on previous drivers and the cars’ inability to figure out what each driver wanted from it.
Turn the dial to the right and things get to be really interesting in Sport and Sport + mode. It’s worth skipping Sport and going directly into Sport +, where you can take ownership of every decision you would like to make. Sport Mode still likes to interfere and will shift before the car reaches redline so your fun is limited until you enter Sport + mode. In both sport modes, however, the exhaust gets louder and the transmission shifts more quickly, and the car becomes noticeably stiffer and more athletic. The Variable Gear Ratio Steering that my test was optioned with adjusted steering sharpness depending on what mode you are in.
It’s worth skipping Sport and going directly into Sport +, where you can take ownership of every decision you would like to make.
It is dull in Normal and Eco mode, but perks up considerably in Sport+ to provide precise inputs and linear loading; however, it lacks that feel that most cars these days just can’t deliver. Though it lacks in this regard, it’s still better than most, and drivers can certainly make the most of it. Want to have the most fun? Hold down the traction control button until you see “TRAC OFF” in the gauge cluster and the traction control light come on. It goes from innocent little Hannah Montana to wrecking ball Miley Cyrus with just a flip of a switch and turn of a dial. It takes a sledgehammer, wears an evil grin, and firmly breaks whatever mold was made by the other cars with the Lexus badge. It is fun, lively, and beckons you to just grab it by the collar and throw it around.
The 3.5-liter V-6 is a carryover from the previous generation and features Direct Injection and pushes out 306 horsepower at 6600 rpm with 277 lb.-ft. of torque coming in at a lofty 4800 rpm. It doesn’t have the gusto that the Germans come with due to their forced induction, but the power delivery is exceptionally smooth and you can’t say enough about the symphony of sound from naturally aspirated engines such as the IS’s. Lexus claims that the RWD IS 350 F SPORT hits the 60 mph marker from a standstill in 5.4 seconds but it feels even faster. Launch the car right, with minimal tire slip, and it takes off with all the subtlety of a parade float during Carnival.
The brakes show no sign of fade, even after repeated stops from high speeds thanks to the front 13.1” disc brakes and high friction pads that come standard on the F SPORT and the rear 12.2” rotors. Body roll is minimal, and the well-bolstered seats keep your body where it should be. The car noticeably understeers when the limits of the tires are exceeded, but the rear end does a great job rotating the car to keep you going in the right direction. The double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension does a good job of keeping the tires firmly pressed against the pavement to ensure maximum stability in all situations.
You simply can’t help yourself from doing burnouts everywhere with this car, as the ease of it is ridiculously simple: left foot on the brake, hit the gas and let the rear tires do their thing. Watch the cloud of smoke behind you get bigger and bigger, and enjoy. When I tried to figure out how to properly launch the car, I ended up with burnout after burnout, giggling like a delighted school kid all the while; if you do it right, you won’t get traction until you hit third or fourth gear. With all of those shenanigans involved, fuel economy dropped to an average of 22 mpg with a low of 21.1 mpg. Oops.
Silliness aside, the car’s athletic nature and aggressive appearance (whether you like it or not) make for some fun times, and will convince you to take the long windy road home so you can have a little fun.
Silliness aside, the car’s athletic nature and aggressive appearance (whether you like it or not) make for some fun times, and will convince you to take the long windy road home so you can have a little fun. Front end bite is spectacular and the car responds to steering input with a nimble dexterity that is incredibly rewarding. The new IS was built off of a shortened GS chassis, so you do feel some of the weight in very tight turns, but the car feels like it is 3200 lbs and not the 3500+lbs that it actually is.
Long sweepers, tight hairpins, or just bludgeoning your way down a straight country road with all the restrictive aids turned off and the car in Sport+ is utterly delightful and takes you back to the good ol’ days when sport sedans were more raw and fun than they were boring. All of which brings me back to my original point regarding the difficult task of making dual-natured sports sedans: I do not envy the difficult task that the engineers face, but I respect their ingenuity when they produce a product that checks the boxes of every want and need that the car must contain.
It can be argued that this little Lexus outdoes what Europe was known for: making the best sports sedans.
Finally, the price. How much do you, the buyer, have to shell out in order to get this extremely well put together Lexus? $47,472 as tested. The base price of my test car was $39,615, plus the Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert and Auto-Dimming exterior mirrors for $600, the F SPORT Package for $3,620 (which gives you all the requisite F SPORT pieces), Variable Gear Ratio Steering for $400, Navigation Package for $2,085, an Accessory Package for $242, and finally a lofty delivery fee of $910. This may seem rather steep for a Lexus, but it is quite the bargain when compared to top trim Germans. It can be argued that this little Lexus outdoes what Europe was known for: making the best sports sedans. Well, at least for now.
Photo Credit: Copyright 2014 Garry Gulledge / Car Fanatics Blog